Navy is a true international service; it is because most often than not it operates beyond 12 nautical miles of the coast and hence in international waters called the high seas. Our counterparts from the Army and the Air Force rarely leave the country whereas we do it on an everyday basis; in almost every sailing we leave the territorial limits of the country. I was conscious of it in my very first sailing as a cadet on the cruiser Delhi. At sea, when I looked around, it filled me with a strange thrill that the waters around me connected me as much to foreign lands as to India.
|One World One Dream – At the Great Wall of China|
Still, there is nothing like actually going abroad; one of the fringe benefits of joining the Navy. I remember the then Captain Nayyar, Commanding Officer (CO) of Indian Naval Ship (INS) Delhi, addressing the ship’s company before entering the port of Aden; my first foreign port. He said each one of us were the ambassadors of our great nation ashore and were expected to conduct ourselves likewise. I thought to myself: ‘What great luck to be called “Your Excellency” at the age of twenty-one’. Some of us accompanied the CO for luncheon at the Governor’s residence and felt like true ambassadors indeed.
|With H.E. Sh. B. Jaishankar, High Commissioner of India|
Our next cruise was to the port of Sabang in Indonesia. It was about 20 kms or so from the city of Balawan. This was where we imagined the fun to be. But, the problem that confronted us was how to reach there. With our meager resources we could not have hired a cab and we were not familiar with the bus routes. As we came out of the port we spotted a ‘tempo’ driven by a sardar. We thumbed a ride. As we sat with him in the front seats he got into a conversation with us about the ship. We showed off to him how the ship was fitted with the very latest in warfare and comfort. He was particularly keen to know about the conditions in the Engine Room. We told him that our Engine Room had the latest in air-conditioned luxury and had
|Indian Navy officers at Cape of Good Hope|
controls and sensors to match a liner. After three quarter of an hour’s journey he dropped us at Belawan with the parting shot, “Great to know about your modern ship, Sirs; you did not recognize me, I am LME (Leading Mechanical Engineroom rating) Avtar Singh from your ship. This ‘tempo’ belongs to my brother here in Belawan. How about coming to the Engine Room sometimes and doing a watch with me?” For the next few months we avoided A Singh on board as if he were a leper.
|With “Ambassadors” of other Navies at a Seminar|
On Ganga, I remember our CO’s address before entering the Ethiopian (now Eritrean) port of Massawa. After reminding us about our ambassadorial duties he embarked on another subject. He said foreign visits were also occasions to build up databanks. He said whilst we were not expected to actively indulge in any intelligence gathering, but, many a times, information could come to us in most unexpected manner. To illustrate the point he told us about the time when Indians were making overtures towards the Germans to procure submarines from them and wanted more information about them. He said he had gone to have a haircut at a saloon in Bonn and there, whilst waiting for his turn, he was leafing through the magazines. Lo and behold he found all the information about the submarines in an article in a local magazine. That evening, after we entered Massawa, we must have caused a small flutter in international – relations, for, the entire Ganga wardroom landed up at the local saloon for a haircut.
|As a young officer in Odessa|
On Himgiri we had gone on a foreign visit to the Black Sea Soviet (now Ukranian) port of Odessa. In foreign ports, sailors generally go out in uniform whereas the officers may go out in civvies. But, so great was the fascination of the Soviet belles with uniform that we found that the sailors managed to make friends with the prettiest of them. As if that was not enough, to add insult to injury, on the second day of our stay when a reception was held on board for the local authorities and their ladies, one of the ladies enquired of us as to why there was no officer in the reception. It was difficult to get to the bottom of this because of language barrier and it took us sometime to unravel the mystery. Apparently, a day earlier one of the Petty Officers in uniform on shore leave, when asked as to why was there a distinction between some of us going out for ‘liberty’ (shore leave) in uniform and others in civvies had informed them that only they, the officers, with an anchor or two on their sleeves, were “permitted” to go out in uniform.
|On duty in erstwhile Yugoslavian port of Split|
During our trip to Athens we were ambling in the Constitution Square when a kind man came to us and asked if we were Indian. He said that he admired Indians and would like us to have drinks in the company of his fair-sex friends. The drinks were nice and the girls were nicer still. We talked about our great nations, our history and heritage, Taj Mahal, Delhi etc (amongst other things, that is) and really enjoyed ourselves. We were under-trainee Acting Sub Lieutenants on board. We were convinced that we were smarter, wittier, more interesting company; else, why would the girls be attracted to us as compared to our more senior colleagues from Himgiri? In our megalomaniac trance we did not know that the man who had invited us had quietly vanished and so had our seniors. Later, we were asked to pay an exorbitant bill for the drinks, and we had to part with our entire foreign allowance and more. We were the suckers who had fallen for the obvious ploy. When we returned on board we were ‘ceremoniously’ received with all the seniors lining the gangway and going through the motions of a mock side-pipe.
|In Florence (Italy)|
Such hoaxes and swindles during foreign jaunts are worth remembering. During one such trip we landed up at Colombo. In order to shop there we had to first convert our Indian rupees into local currency. Just as it happened in Athens, a kind hearted gentleman came and asked us to put our money in individual envelopes that he had brought, write the names and amounts on the sealed envelopes and then he’d go and get the requisite local currency. He took the envelopes from us only to make a list and then handed these back to us. We held on to these whilst he went on his errand. We were confident that this was totally safe since we had the envelopes with the money with us. As time passed and he did not return we reassured ourselves by feeling the envelopes containing our money. However, when he did not return even after one hour of wait we opened the envelopes and found that instead of our hard-earned money these contained newspaper strips. In the evening we narrated this incident, over drinks, to other officers in the wardroom and they made fun of us for not being observant and cautious. The next day the lot to whom we had told the story also lost their money in like manner.
But, of all the incidents during foreign trips, this one takes the cake. Whilst walking in one of the ports, knowing that the locals would not know our language, that is, Punjabi, one officer
|Crossing the English Channel|
would accost the lovely damsels with the naughty Punjabi line: “D— ke thane jaana?” (Are you willing or should I take you to Thana, that is, Police Station). The damsels, not understanding the question or its import would just smile at him and walk away and all of us would burst in cackles. However, when he asked this of the most beautiful of the girls, she confronted him with, “Thane jaana”. He did not know where to look. That evening we had a reception on board and she happened to be the daughter of the Indian (and Punjabi) First Secretary. Our flamboyant Punjabi officer did the Mister India trick (many years before the movie was released) and tried to become invisible during the party.
Foreign trips or port calls or overseas deployments are great ones to showcase Indian technology, culture, greatness etc. These are occasions to make bridges of friendship across the oceans. However, what one remembers most about them are such snippets.
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